When Thomas and Jenny approached a couples therapist before their wedding, they weren’t expecting it to become a long-term commitment. “Initially we decided to see a counsellor due to some trust issues in our relationship,” he says. “We found premarital therapy incredibly helpful, because it gave us a safe space to communicate with each other without fear of repercussion. It became an important part of the relationship – even when things were going well.”
After their wedding this summer, the couple continued to attend sessions while they settled into marriage. By discussing potential problems with an unbiased third party, Thomas says they both felt confident to be more open with each other.
It also helped them to work on their communication styles, which has further strengthened their relationship. “It’s not just what you say, but when and how you say it. Before therapy, I might say something critical first thing in the morning and Jenny would immediately become defensive. We’ve learned that we communicate better when we allocate a time to sit down after dinner and rationally discuss things.”
Although the couple dated for eight years before they got married, Thomas believes that counselling prepared them for the changes that come with marriage. “Even after all that time, therapy opened my eyes to new things about Jenny. It helped me to understand that people deal with issues in different ways and I have become better at seeing things from her perspective.”
While premarital or wedding therapy may sound unromantic to some, for many couples, it is a way to future-proof a relationship and smash the dangerous illusion of the fairytale ending. “We had a fantastic connection when we met, but over time you have to put effort into a relationship,” says Thomas.
It might seem out of the ordinary, but Cate Campbell, a sex and relationship therapist and a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, says such therapy is on the rise. “In the past five years, this type of counselling has become increasingly popular,” she says. “I think people are becoming increasingly realistic about relationships.”
However loved-up couples seem on their wedding day, the Office for National Statistics shows that the average marriage in the UK lasts 12 years. It is a far cry from the “happy ever after” ending promised by books and movies, which could explain why more couples are taking a proactive approach to maintaining healthy relationships.
Unlike traditional couples therapy, which is often attended after a serious relationship breakdown, premarital therapy aims to prevent problems before they arise. It can cover a wide range of topics tailored to the couple, including money management, parenting, holidays, sex and other issues.
“Sometimes I see couples who consider themselves soulmates. When they realise they have differences, this can be very hard to digest and they run into problems,” says Campbell. During the honeymoon phase, any small disagreements are often obscured by oxytocin, the love hormone that helps us to bond and reproduce. “Once we commit to each other or have a baby, this starts to wear off. That’s where small problems can start to escalate.”
For many religious communities, premarital counselling isn’t a new phenomenon. When Georgina Fuller got married 11 years ago, she was expected to take a six-week marriage preparation course, run by priests. “It was mandatory so that we could marry in the Catholic church,” she says.
“We went once a week for a couple of hours and got advice about our relationship. It included topics such as shared values, and managing expectations about marriage. They advised couples to discuss how they would want to bring up children together. It’s a very important thing to talk about and it’s not always the first thing people think of when they’re in love and planning a wedding.”
Although elements of the course were useful, Fuller says the heavy focus on religion was alienating. “I felt the course was more about telling us what to do so that we could be good Catholics, as opposed to listening to us and helping us to understand our feelings. I think traditional therapy, where couples discuss their feelings openly with their partner, is more helpful.”
As the complexities of modern life increase and people live more secular lives, many people are turning to independent, non-religious counselling for support. Last year, the School of Life in London introduced premarital psychotherapy to help couples build on the existing foundations of their relationship.
“Our pre-marriage or pre-commitment therapy isn’t just for people getting married,” says Charlotte Fox Weber, the head of psychotherapy for the school. “It could be for couples who are having a baby or buying a house together. We support people to understand the realities of taking their relationship to the next level.”
Known as “romantic realism”, more than 70 couples have signed up for premarital therapy since the sessions were launched. “We have seen a big rise in the number of young couples attending therapy, but we’re also seeing older couples who have been divorced, recognised they made mistakes and want to make things work this time around.”
Fox Weber says that some couples are even given therapy sessions as a wedding gift. “Sometimes people think they’re so in love that they don’t need therapy. But counselling can make a good life even better. It’s like taking out breakdown cover before your car breaks down.”
It is something that Angela wishes she had considered when she got married in 2010, after a three-year engagement. “I never imagined anything could go wrong. We were so in love on our honeymoon, it made me wonder how relationships ever break down.” But almost a decade on, she is able to see how easily cracks can form. “We’ve faced a lot of stress over the years which has been hard to cope with,” she says.
At the end of 2012, her partner lost his job shortly after the birth of their first child. The couple moved from their home in Australia to New Zealand to find work, which left Angela homesick and without the support of her extended family. By the time her second child was born two years later, she was struggling to keep her head above water.
“Premarital therapy prepares you for what’s to come and there was a lot I wasn’t expecting,” she says. “I had no idea how difficult it would be to have two small children, or how much I would struggle with losing my financial independence on maternity leave. It became harder to discuss these issues with my partner because I was so exhausted I couldn’t even articulate how I was feeling.”
Although she recognises, in hindsight, that these emotions are normal, it made her feel there was something wrong. “Communication starts to break down so quickly when you’re tired and stressed. Every tiny thing can build into resentment. Therapy helps you to see the potential pitfalls to prevent these clashes from happening.”
The couple are extremely happy now, but it has taken time to iron out their differences. “One of the most important things for me is realising that when you are in a relationship, you are still an independent person responsible for your own happiness,” says Angela.
In 2017, she made the decision to retrain as a mindset and success coach, which she believes has given her the tools she needs to take control of her own life. “Once I had this, it was easy to see how to get my marriage to a great place again.”
Her sentiments are echoed by Campbell, who says that part of being in a healthy relationship is having confidence in yourself. “You need to feel happy that you can disagree with your partner and the world won’t end,” she says. “In reality, soulmates and perfect relationships do not exist. But premarital therapy can help two individuals build strong foundations for the future.”
(Some names have been changed)